08/18/2005 11:00PM

Saratoga deserves new nickname: Graveyard of Value


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Horseplayers frustrated with short fields at Belmont were cautiously optimistic the situation would improve at Saratoga, but that has not been the case. The problem is two-fold:

* Increasing competition from rival tracks such as Monmouth Park and slots-fueled Delaware Park, particularly for bread-and-butter claiming horses and stakes horses.

* The security barns that went into effect at the start of the Belmont meet, where race-day horses must spend six hours under tight security in less-than-ideal conditions.

Horsemen can probably live with the current purse structure with an eye toward that wonderful day sometime around the fall of 2006 when the video lottery terminals, a.k.a. one-armed bandits, are supposed to be up and running at Aqueduct.

But the makeshift setup of the security barns/tents has been a bone of contention from day one here, prompting vociferous and justifiable complaints from trainers regarding their inadequate size, ventilation, and floor-covering materials.

Purge, the winner of last year's Dwyer and Jim Dandy, was scheduled to make his return in the eighth race on an oppressively hot and humid opening day, but washed out so badly in the security setup that Todd Pletcher had no choice but to scratch him. Fans wanting to see Purge in the flesh had to wait until Haskell Day at Monmouth, where he won by a dozen lengths. On day two, Sweet Symphony's allowance prep for the Alabama became a virtual walkover when her main rival, Lady Pegasus, "freaked out" in the security barn, according to Bobby Frankel, who scratched his filly in the paddock.

To its credit, the New York Racing Association is doing its best to try and level the playing field and bolster an impression that everything that takes place on the backstretch is on the up and up. NYRA officials have had some much needed back-and-forth with horsemen in recent days, and improvements to the existing facilities will surely be in the works, at least as far as NYRA's current financial situation permits.

In the meantime, however, field size was down through the first half of the meet, and it was down more significantly than the overall numbers suggest. During the first three weeks last year, there were 1,447 starters in the first 169 races, an average of 8.56 per race, as compared to this year's totals of 1,408 starters in the first 169 races, an average of 8.33.

A decrease of .23 horses per race doesn't seem that bad until you take into account the tremendous difference in the weather this year as opposed to last. A dozen turf races were rained off to the main track during the first three weeks of 2004, and this year that only happened once.

A truer picture of diminishing field size emerges when you filter out the following:

* Off-the-turf races.

* Maiden and allowance races for New York-breds, because they have a huge financial incentive to run here.

* Steeplechase races. Again, they have a huge financial incentive.

Excluding the above, and considering only races on dirt and turf for open company, the numbers are as follows:

In 2004, 739 horses ran in 93 dirt races, an average field of 7.95. On turf, 285 runners competed in 30 races, an average of 9.50.

This year, in 72 dirt races, 520 horses have run, an average of 7.22. On the turf, 405 runners have competed in 46 races, for an average field of 8.80.

Field size in dirt races is down an average of .73 horses per race, a staggering decline of nearly 10 percent from a year ago. Turf fields are off by almost as much, at .70 horses per race.

That's the real deal. Until the situation changes, Saratoga is the Graveyard of Value, or the Playground of Favorites, whichever you prefer.

First-half favorites went 68 for 169, a .402 batting average that would make Ted Williams proud. If you exclude the four steeplechase races, where favorites won 1 of 4 (the winner was the "weaker half" of an entry), and races for 2-year-olds on the turf, where favorites were blanked from eight races and the average win payoff was more than $17, the post-time choice was 67 for 157, a .427 batting average that is far above and beyond the benchmark average of 30 to 33 percent.

Just so there is no confusion, .427 is 42.7 percent. Are we clear on that?

Like the price of oil and real estate, it seems that favorites in New York have been "repriced" in today's market, where bettors are better informed than ever before and don't have to deal with as many contenders as in the past.

If you are a chalk player on the loose in Saratoga, you have never had it so good, and you are probably grinning from ear to ear as you reach for the dinner check at Siro's.